This image, created by Gakutei Harunobu, is one that I have been waiting to make ever since I first saw it. I very much like the 'abstraction'; it has the appearance of modern art, yet was designed all the way back in 1820. The print must have been a commission from a poetry group, and we can safely assume that Gakutei himself was a member of the group, because one of the three poems is signed 'Shinkado', one of his poetry names.
One thing giving this print its modern appearance is the fact that no 'outline' block is used. In most traditional Japanese prints, outlines of each part of the design are drawn with a brush then cut onto a woodblock. At printing time, this 'key' block with the outlines is printed first, and it is then relatively 'easy' for the colours to be fitted properly within those lines. But in a design like this, with no black lines to form boundaries between areas of different colours, both carving and printing are much more difficult. The presence of the black outlines on the traditional type of print allows a certain amount of leeway when printing the colours, as slight variations in register are covered up by the black lines; here though, there is nowhere to hide.
The ninth print in last year's album - the scene of the Hawaiian sea - was also done mostly without outlines, and because of this I learned something interesting about the technique during the recent annual exhibition. I am a member of the association of traditional carvers and printers here in Tokyo, and some of the other members visited the exhibition. When one of them looked at the Hawaiian print, he pointed at the joint between sea and sky where there is no black line to 'hide' any errors, and said something like "ke nuki awase ... jozu ni dekita ne!"
I tried to understand the meaning of what he had said; on the face of it, the phrase seemed to mean 'the hair-pulling joining place; not bad!' And yes, to make such a joint so seamlessly is indeed a task to make the most patient printer pull his hair out in frustration! But when he went on to explain further, I realized that I was misinterpreting his words; he was referring to the fact that the joint must be so tightly fitted together that not even a hair could be 'pulled' between the two adjoining sections.
I encounter this sort of situation - not understanding the terminology - very frequently when talking to these workmen. I can do a wide variety of techniques, but I haven't any idea what they are called. These men grew up working together and have a full vocabulary to describe every aspect of traditional printmaking; I, who have always worked alone, have had no access to such knowledge. Perhaps one day I can convince one of them to sit down and run through a comprehensive list of terminology for me. Then I won't need to pull my hair out unnecessarily when faced with a tough job!
I hadn't particularly planned it this way, but it seems that I have started off each of the past three Surimono Albums with prints that feature metallic pigments. I guess partly this is because I would like each set to start off with a 'deluxe' image, but it is perhaps also because these 'New Year' type of prints do deserve special treatment! I should add though, that I produce such prints at this time of year not without considerable hardship to myself. The first print of each album is carved and printed in early spring, and here where I live, in early spring the air is full of cedar pollen, so the pleasure at the return of warm days soon becomes offset by the endless sneezing and itching around the eyes. Metal powders like the ones I used on this print are very light, and as I work the air becomes full of a mix of metal powder and pollen! Of course I wear a mask, but it doesn't seem to help much, and sometimes I have trouble guiding the paper into the proper place in the midst of all the sneezing. Perhaps though, it's best to wrap all these difficulties up in one 'package', and then look forward to working on the remaining prints of the set in 'clear' air!
Thank you for being with me for this year's work, and I look forward to making a wonderful set of prints for you!